Facing local and international pressure — including a month-long hunger strike by opposition leader Leopoldo López — Venezuela on Monday announced that it will hold legislative elections on Dec. 6.
In a news conference, the head of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, said that campaigning to fill the 167-seat National Assembly will begin Nov. 13 and that the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) will be asked to observe the vote.
The announcement sets the stage for what the opposition believes is its first chance in more than a decade to win control of congress.
The administration’s reluctance to fix a date had fueled rumors that the vote might be canceled.
“The best proof that we are not in a democracy is what just happened,” said Jesús Torrealba, the head of the opposition coalition known as the MUD. “In a country like this, which is facing a totalitarian process, the people had to yank an election date out of the government through multiple acts of pressure.”
Polls suggest that the deteriorating economy, food shortages, rampant crime, and soaring inflation will give government foes a leg up and, just perhaps, allow them to take control of the National Assembly.
The 29-party opposition coalition held primaries last month with the aim of rallying around a single candidate for each seat. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will be holding its primary election on Sunday.
President Nicolás Maduro on Monday called on followers to head to the polls this weekend and build a wave of support needed to hang on to congress. The Dec. 6 election date is highly symbolic — it’s the same day that the late President Hugo Chávez won his first presidential race in 1998.
“We now have a date for the Peoples’ Battle for a New Victory,” Maduro wrote on Twitter. “Everyone has a date with history.”
What remains unclear is the fate of López, who has been on a hunger strike for 29 days demanding the election date and international observation but also freedom for political prisoners and the end to government repression.
Karina Rico, a spokeswoman with Lopez’s Voluntad Popular party, said he remains in isolation and it could take time for his lawyers and family to get word to him about the election date. And it isn’t clear if he’ll be willing to lift the hunger strike with two demands unmet, she said.
“There has been no decision made yet,” she said. “We have to wait and see.”
Dozens, if not hundreds, of others have also gone on hunger strikes in support of López and his demands.
López, a former mayor and presidential candidate, was jailed Feb. 18, 2014, after the government accused him of inciting violence amid national protests. Human-rights groups have called his trial a sham.
While he’s being kept out of the public eye by the administration, there has been growing concern about his health. His party and his doctor have warned that there might be permanent damage from a prolonged hunger strike. Over the weekend, Caracas Archbishop Jorge Urosa Sabino weighed in.
“In the name of God,” he wrote, “I ask you to end this hunger strike and save your life and continue fighting for freedom and democracy, which are your ideals and your purpose in life.”